WITCHES (Tribeca 2024) – Review by Alexandra Heller-Nicholas

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Memory is a funny, porous thing. Many of us will have the experience of thinking back upon something that happened to us only to find – before we even consciously realize it – that it has blurred with something we once saw on TV or in a movie. Rather than revealing us as soulless plagiarists, poisoned by the cathode ray and celluloid lure, more constructively we can see that beneath this phenomenon there is something about our sensory experiences blurring, where something beyond intellect within us connects with these textual anchors in a way that is wholly embodied and makes emotional sense, if not altogether logical.

Enter Elizabeth Sankey’s Witches, a film that uses the visual language of the on-screen witch to talk about her own very personal experience of motherhood and psychological collapse. The cultural history of the witch is one that has, across the years, offered a complex and at times contradictory vision of both idealized and demonized womanhood; a figure of strength and independence at times, that same power is often the very same thing that finds her excluded, feared and mocked.

Using the cinematic language of witches to simultaneously speak to this broader history – spanning back of course to the witch hunts – and a very personal one focused on her own experiences, Sankey’s documentary is part confessional, part clip reel and part video essay. While iconic images of witches from everything from The Craft to The Wizard of Oz form the textual terrain upon which Sankey maps her story, Witches is far from a purely cinephilic exercise in film appreciation. Rather, this film shines the most when Sankey uses the history of witches in cinema as a kind of paintbox with which to craft her own deeply moving story of being a woman who herself has at times failed to adhere to the socially acceptable model of what precisely that means

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Alexandra Heller-Nicholas

Alexandra Heller-Nicholas is a multi-award-winning film critic and author who has published nine books on cult, horror and exploitation cinema with an emphasis on gender politics, including the 2020 book ‘1000 Women in Horror, 1898-2018’ which was included on Esquire Magazine’s list of the best 125 books written about Hollywood. Alexandra is a contributing editor at Film International, a columnist at Fangoria, an Adjunct Professor at Deakin University, and a member of the advisory board of the Miskatonic Institute of Horror Studies (LA, NYC, London).